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I have always been interested in two things: space and transportation. I first got the inkling I could actually make a career involving both of those things was when I took part in VASTS, a Virginia Space Grant high school education program which culminated in a one-week stay at NASA Langley Research Center where I and 40 other 11th-graders had to design a crewed mission to Mars. The next year, I gathered a small team of alumni from that program to compete in the Conrad Foundation's 2012 Sprit of Innovation tech entrepreneurship competition, where we pitched a commercial asteroid mining operation in the final round at NASA Ames Research Center. It was at some point during that year and a half when I had the thought "I don't want to stop doing this; I want space to be my life's work."
Since then, I have become fascinated not only by the prospect of utilizing the resources of the planets to build a spacefaring future for humankind, but also by the fundamental knowledge of our place in the universe that we gain from exploring the planets. It turns out that no matter how grandiosely sci-fi authors and tech boosters may simplify the engineering challenge inherent in - and scientific knowledge gained by - planetary exploration, this is a field of tremendous inherent complexity and equally tremendous constraints on how well we truly understand that complexity. It is one thing to infer that the iron meteorites come from metallic objects in the asteroid belt - they must come from somewhere, after all. It is another thing entirely, however, to understand the properties of such metallic objects - their surfaces, their interiors, their formation histories - let alone conclusively find them in space or even credibly demonstrate that they really do exist. Even though we are planning to visit a large metallic asteroid with the Psyche mission, we still don't really know what the surface of Psyche will look like, and we must be prepared for it to appear dramatically different from our present expectations.
My current research work is attempting to investigate how the properties of metallic asteroid surfaces change with exposure to the space environment. I use iron meteorites as a proxy material, conducting laboratory experiments to simulate the solar wind radiation and micrometeoroid impacts that would bombard an asteroid's surface over geologic time. By observing the changes these experiments impart on the samples, I hope to be able to make predictions about what we might see on the surface of a metallic asteroid, which can be validated by the Psyche mission and other future missions to visit such asteroids. Will we find changes to the albedo, color, or reflectance spectra of an exposed metallic surface? Can a metallic surface form a regolith, or does it remain a solid block of material? How would these potentially very different surfaces affect the measurements we will make with telescopes and spacecraft instruments?
We have big dreams of returning to the Moon, sending humans to Mars, building mines and cities and factories on myriad other worlds, and expanding the reach of humanity into a multi-planetary species. It is a common narrative that enacting those dreams requires vision and willpower, on top of significant investment. That narrative often leaves out the fact that there are still huge gaps in our knowledge which stand in the way of enacting those dreams. It will take a tremendous amount of rigorous study to close those gaps, and only once they are closed will we understand the problem well enough that we can truly plan to do these things, rather than simply dream about them.
B.S. Cum Laude in Geology, College of William & Mary, 2016
Ph.D. Candidate in Exploration Systems Design, ASU, expected completion 2021
Psyche Mission, "Team Magrathea" planetary formation group